PICK OF THE VERY BEST: CHARD
Great to eat or grow as a colourful ornamental
ONE of the most striking summer bedding combinations I’ve ever seen was at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, years ago, when the beds in front of the Palm House were given over to vegetables – ornamental vegetables, planted with flowers. And there, rising out of a carpet of white alyssum, were the bright-red stems of ruby chard. It looked fantastic.
That was before I discovered how good it was to eat! The leaves are often better than spinach for so many of the same dishes, with a richer flavour and such a dark, deep colour.
But first let’s clear up exactly what we’re talking about here, because different terms are used for the same thing and it can get a little confusing. All these plants are forms of the British native seaside plant Beta vulgaris subsp.
maritima – as is the beetroot and sugar beet. The chards, with their fat, coloured leaf stems and large, puckered leaves, fall into one group, while perpetual spinach, with its more slender green stems and flat foliage, falls into another.
The chards are also known as seakale beet, rhubarb chard, ruby chard, Swiss chard, silver chard and silver beet. Meanwhile, perpetual spinach is also known as spinach beet, but is more closely related to chard than to annual spinach. I told you it was confusing!
Whatever you call them, they can all be grown in the same way, and they have one huge advantage over ordinary annual spinach – they don’t run to seed the moment the weather warms up or you take a week’s holiday. Last month,
I finally dug up the ‘Bright Lights’ chard I’d sown in April last year. It had provided countless harvests since last summer.
I find the best way to harvest both chard and perpetual spinach is to snip the older outer leaves as you need them; new leaves will continue to develop in the centre of the plant. This provides leaves for the kitchen while at the same time leaving colour on the plant. Whole plants can be cut, but doing so means weeks with a colourless gap in the garden, and sometimes prompts bolting.
Chards are also popular grown as baby leaves, their bold, colourful stems sparking up salads – both visually and in terms of flavour – when harvested at just a few inches high. A single spring sowing can give you baby leaves for salads and months of regular harvests while, at the same time, providing invaluable colour in the vegetable garden. Not a bad return for one packet of seed.
Tastier and more attractive than spinach, chard is also easier to grow and less likely to bolt during hot weather